After the upheaval of the past year, coupled with continued concerns over returns to the office, it’s no surprise that employees find themselves battling heightened levels of work-related stress and anxiety. At Advanced, we are aware more than ever that companies need to ensure their employees feel supported at this critical time, just as we appreciate that managers and business leaders play a key role in driving positive change..
As businesses look towards the new normal, one of the greatest challenges facing business leaders and HR teams will be how to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their employees. With 60% of adults stating that their mental health had declined over the course of lockdown, it’s clear that understanding the impact of the past year upon their people, will be of the utmost importance to business leaders.
CIPD reports early research into the effects of lockdown show increased instances of fatigue, reduced physical exercise as well as heightened levels of anxiety and irritability normally associated with post-traumatic stress symptoms. It is important that managers and leaders are aware of the fundamentally damaging impact that the past year will have had on many of their people’s mental wellbeing and to consider what steps they can take to help safeguard the mental health of their people.
As businesses continue to develop their strategy for success post lockdown, there are some measures which they should take into consideration in order to ensure that their employees feel they are fully supported.
Normalise discussions around mental health
The wider challenge facing organisations currently is that of safely re-onboarding the workforce. As lockdown measures continue to ease across the country, many will naturally be looking at a return to the office in order to impose a sense of normality on their lives. However, when developing your strategies for returning to the office, it is important to bear in mind the different circumstances of your employees and to be mindful of the fact that for many, a return to the workplace may bring with it a whole host of anxieties.
Recent research shows that only one in three British employees would feel comfortable returning to the office in even a part-time capacity. Worryingly, the same study suggests that 37% of those surveyed feel that their employers are avoiding implementing hybrid working models. The concern is that in their zeal to return to the workplace and lay to rest the disruptions of the last twelve months, many business leaders are missing a great opportunity to change the structure of the working world and to take on board the lessons we’ve learned from remote working and what that might mean for driving productivity and profitability.
When looking at the return to the workplace, it is important to take a consultative approach, rather than imposing one sweeping mandate. Utilise online platforms to engage with your employees either by virtual town halls or online surveys in order to ensure that your employees have their say regarding what they feel will be most beneficial for them. Encourage team leaders to engage with their people and ask questions about their preferred working structure and to see who would benefit from a more home-based model or vice versa.
It’s important to remember that after a year of working from home, we have all had to rework our schedules and develop new routines in order to adapt. Many have found these changes have been for the better or have opened up new avenues of possibility regarding their output and productivity. Workplace mental health cannot have a “one size fits all” solution and employers who show a genuine interest In the wellbeing of their employees will find they are nurturing a happier and productive workforce moving forward.
Talking to employees about mental health
When developing a remote working model, it is important to ensure that there are no great divides between those employees who wish to spend a greater amount of time in the office and those who prefer a more remote-based structure. It is of course, far simpler to touch base with colleagues who are working on site but the continued use of technology such as Zoom and teams which became the lifeblood of companies during lockdown enables HR professionals and team leaders the ability to hold regular check-ins with employees.
As well as being an opportunity to measure productivity and to touch base about deadlines and other matters, most importantly, these check-ins allow you to connect with your employees and gauge their wellbeing. A report by the RSPH found that 67% of people who switched to remote working during the pandemic felt less connected to their colleagues. In developing hybrid working models, it is important to cater for each employee’s requirements but also to ensure that those who feel it is more beneficial to work from home, that don’t feel that same sense of isolation.
HR systems and other digital platforms will allow leaders and HR professionals to effectively touch base with these remote employees and to ensure that no one feels left on an island with regards to their wellbeing. Encouraging employees to make full use of annual leave and to completely disengage from the working process when away from the office, can also go a long way towards helping reset the work-life balance.
Resetting the work/life divide
One of the greatest changes over the course of the pandemic has been the erosion for many of a clear divide in their work and home life. Where people used to traditionally draw a line under the working by leaving the office space, working from home now means that signing off for the day is as extensive as turning off a laptop or moving from one room in the house to another. For many, this has created a blurring of the traditional line between work and home.
The adoption of new technology which has been a boon for organisations in ensuring they are able to keep operating as efficiently as possible over the past 12 months, also means that employees are more connected than ever with the everyday flow of their business. For many, this has created an “Always on” culture where employees find it increasingly difficult to disengage from work outside of office hours. The RSPH report that more than half (56 per cent) of those who started working from home said they found it harder to switch off, while almost two in five (38 per cent) said the change had disturbed their sleep.
Managers and Business leaders play the greatest role in promoting the “Always on” culture. The Economist suggest that employees match the behaviour of the hierarchy and that if lower-level employees see exec level leaders responding to emails out of office hours, then they also feel pressured to do the same. This leads to increased levels of anxiety and stress for employees who never feel truly disengaged from the office space.
It is important that from an executive-level that leaders make a statement of intent regarding work schedules and to define in absolute terms, what they constitute as urgent, in order to ensure employees don’t feel pressured into replying to every email outside of office hours.
How to raise awareness of mental health
One of the greatest obstacles facing business leaders when tackling the issue of employee wellbeing is the perceived stigma around mental health discussions within the workplace. Even pre pandemic, there was a sense that this was a somewhat uncomfortable, almost taboo subject with many who suffered from mental illness feeling as though they were unable to lean on their employers for support. A report by Mental Health UK suggests that 47% of the people surveyed felt they had experienced discrimination within the workplace as a result of mental illness, with 55% saying they could not disclose information about their mental health to their colleagues.
The continued stigma around mental health in the workplace presents a barrier for leaders and HR professionals when trying to develop appropriate support strategies for employees. HSE have outlined management standards for good practice in supporting the mental wellbeing of employees. Within these standards, the emphasis is placed upon managers acting as thought leaders and actively promoting a company culture that is open and frank around mental health discussions.
As we move into the post pandemic world, it is worth acknowledging that it has been a mentally taxing time for everybody. As much as individual circumstances will have dictated how difficult the past year will have been, everybody will have felt the impact of lockdown and Covid on their mental health. Employers should take the lessons of the past year on board and ensure that their organisations are putting in place framework that shifts discussions around mental health away from the taboo.
By ensuring that mental health and wellbeing is folded into wider assessments around performance, you remove the stigma around these discussions and ensure that you are setting a standard and culture which demonstrates to your employees that you are committed to supporting them.
Whilst by no means an exhaustive list, the prevailing trend is showing that managers and business leaders are poised to make the greatest impact in supporting the mental wellbeing of their employees by changing up the culture of their organisation. By setting clear standards and demonstrating a commitment to safeguarding your employees, businesses can ensure their people remain happy, safe and motivated.
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